Nashville owns some prime real estate that is utilized by relatively few citizens, maintained by tax dollars, returns little or no profit and would be an absolute gold mine for developers.
No, we’re not talking about the State Fairgrounds.
We’re referring to the seven golf courses that the city owns and maintains. How many millions of dollars would Harpeth Hills, rolling green hills spilling out from Percy Warner Park, for example, fetch on the open market?
Or how about city parks? Imagine the condos that could be built in Sevier Park and on Percy Warner’s pastoral steeplechase course. The underutilized Rose Park has stunning views of downtown.
Why isn’t there the same clamor at city hall to “develop” Metro’s other thousands of open acres as there is for the precious 114 that comprise the fairgrounds?
We may not know why, but we have an idea why. It’s because the folks who make these types of Metro-centric decisions aren’t interested in stock car racing, fairs or flea markets. And they don’t know Coo Coo Marlin from a corn dog.
And so, on June 30, 2010, the fairgrounds and the era it represents — from roaring racecars, cotton candy and Ferris wheels to prize pigs and pumpkins — will come to an end.
That’s even though the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group claims that the mayor has no authority to end it, citing a 1901 piece of state legislation that puts Metro under obligation to host a permanent state fair at the site.
That’s after Metro Legal’s Doug Sloan partially agreed with the group, saying the final authority lies in the hands of the Fair Board.
And it’s after Mayor Karl Dean issued a letter to the board on Oct. 5, “recommending” the closure.
In the letter, Dean said he realized the decision to close shop was difficult, but “given the inability of either [track or fair] to support itself financially, it is simply time for us, as a city, to move on.”
Not everyone agrees about the level of support at the venue.
Fair Director Buck Dozier, for one, disputes the contention that there’s no interest in old-fashioned events in our newfangled city. The former board chairman said that despite several rainy nights this year, September’s 10-day state fair drew 209,131 visitors.
That’s the equivalent of three Tennessee Titans sellouts. And the Nashville Predators would kill for those numbers over a pair of six-game home stands.
Then there are the thousands who flock to the flea market, Christmas Village, various outdoor shows, exhibits and numerous other events. And thousands more who faithfully attend the weekly races at the historic old Fairgrounds Speedway — the Wrigley Field of racetracks — where some of the greatest drivers in racing history competed at one time or another.
It’s unlikely that any municipal golf course or city park is utilized by nearly as many people as visit the fairgrounds each year.
Dean mentioned that the fair couldn’t support itself financially, but it didn’t go begging Metro for money as some other entities have done, and no tax dollars go directly to the site. Instead, its operating losses eat into its reserve fund.
“We don’t cost the taxpayers anything,” said Danny Denson, who has operated fairgrounds Speedway in this, its final season. “Not a cent of tax revenue goes to the fairgrounds. We may not make a lot of profit, but we don’t lose any tax money — which is more than most Metro-operated facilities can say.
“I once heard somebody say that the city doesn’t need a ‘playground for race drivers.’ Well, the city sure has a lot of ‘playgrounds for golfers.’ What the difference?”
The racetrack was built with private funds in 1958 by Bill Donoho and partners. It has been maintained by private funds ever since. The track operator leases the facility from Metro for a set fee and/or share of the profits.
“I could understand shutting it down if it was eating up tax revenues the way some other pro sports do,” Denson said. “But the track has never cost the city a nickel.”
(Metro did, though, assist the track by lowering its rent in the last decade — from as much as $250,000 to an almost negligible sum this year.)
The riverfront’s $250,000 “Ghost Ballet” sculpture (which could as easily be deemed “Wreck In Turn Three”) cost taxpayers more than the fairgrounds. When The City Paper reported on the installation of the sculpture, one reader commented that “leftover parts from torn-down Opryland is what [“Ghost Ballet”] looks like to me.” The analogy is somewhat fitting, given that the former theme park was
another piece of countrified cheese the city had no trouble getting rid of either.
There is a theory we have no trouble embracing that some of Nashville’s “progressive” movers and shakers are eager to shed the city’s perceived Hee-Haw image — namely, country music, stock car racing and country-bumpkin fairs and flea markets.
“First they moved the Grand Ole Opry out of town, and now they’re running stock car racing out,” Denson said. “They’re doing away with the history and tradition that made our city so unique and special. It’s sad to see.”
It’s true the Ryman Auditorium remains, but the Opry’s fans got shuffled across the Cumberland River, so the “Mother Church of Country Music” could host shows by Kid Rock, the Jonas Brothers and Flight of the Conchords.
The remodel may be coincidental, but looking back it can easily be perceived as calculated or elitist.
The original Country Music Hall of Fame used to grace the edge of Music Row, next to a Shoney’s and across the street from tacky souvenir shops. Now, the new hall is downtown near the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and the Sommet Center, and the tacky shops have given way to more hip eateries and boutiques, including an Irish pub and a sushi restaurant.
Opryland’s ruins were rebuilt as Opry Mills, a grandiose oval housing merchandise tailored more for tourists than local folk.
And while the city still loves to tout its Lower Broadway and its honky-tonks, the dirt and grime were cleaned up considerably in the past couple of decades, turning seedy into trendy.
So where do our ordinary folks go? Well, the fairgrounds — the flea market and the noisy, dusty oval racetrack.
Some think it was constant complaints about the track noise that helped lead to the decision to shut down operations. After all, some neighborhood groups have complained about the track noise for years. Now, they fully support the mayor’s recommendation to close it down.
Is racing noisy? Of course it is. It was noisy when the first race was run at the fairgrounds in 1904, and it’s been noisy ever since.
But as third-generation racer Sutherlin Marlin reminded the Fair Board during a recent meeting, only residents older than 105 have a right to complain. All others knew racing was there when they moved in.
“It’s like somebody buying a house by the airport — usually at a pretty good bargain — then complaining about the planes flying over,” Denson said. “There’s not a single person living in this neighborhood [near the track] who wasn’t aware that there was a racetrack here when they moved in.”
Metro officials seem anxious to close the fairgrounds, yet what they intend to do with the property remains unclear. Proposals have ranged from building low-income housing to creating another business park.
In May 2008, then-Executive Director Dozier and a paid consultant, Rod Markin, told about 100 residents and interested parties at a board meeting that something had to change to give the fairgrounds a future. The pair tossed out several scenarios, ranging from keeping an updated fair site to tearing everything out and redeveloping the property as a residential and commercial site.
“The bottom line is the bottom line. So that is going to drive a lot of what we do here,” Dozier said at the time, indicating that whatever goes on the site will have to generate more money.
“The racetrack’s been losing money, the fair has just lost some money in the last few years, so we’ve got to look at some things,” he said, adding, “We’ve got a valuable piece of property here.”
The mayor cites a study concluding that the fairgrounds would require new and modern facilities to be successful.
“Anything that happens with the racing and the fair and fairgrounds staying here, there needs to be a substantial change in that business model,” Markin warned that night, but he and the board said all options were “on the table.”
Mayor Dean looked at several proposals — including ones for a water park and a film school — before sending his letter to the Fair Board, and he has indicated that studies will continue to determine the best use of the site.
“That’s what I find so puzzling,” Denson said. “What’s the big rush about closing the place down when they don’t even know what they want to do with the property?
“As for those folks who live around here and want the fairgrounds shut down, they’d better be careful what they wish for. They may find out that there can be lots worse things than a racetrack or a state fair in their neighborhood.”
Marlin, whose father, Sterling, and grandfather, Coo Coo, won seven track championships over the years, was one of about 200 people who turned out for last month’s public hearing on the fate of the fairgrounds before the final vote.
A lot of them wore work shirts with their name stitched on the pocket. Or they wore old ball caps and scuffed shoes. Obviously, several had just gotten off work — they clearly didn’t drop by after playing 18 at the country club.
These were mostly ordinary, working-class folks — the faces you see at stock car races, flea markets or state and county fairs. And if their mood was a tad prickly, perhaps it was understandable.
They may not have a lot of fancy degrees, but don’t count them short. They’re smart enough to know when they’re getting the bum’s rush.